A full-blown war has erupted in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Karnataka unit. After embarrassing losses to the ruling Congress in two bye-elections earlier this month, former Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa’s supremacy in the Karnataka BJP has come under strain.

Backed by long-time Rashtriya Swayasevak Sangh heavyweight BL Santosh, the leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council, KS Eshwarappa, last week decided to take his battle with Yeddyurappa into the open. In a meeting termed “Save organisation” held at the Palace Grounds in Bengaluru on Thursday, Eshwarappa’s loyalists trained their guns on Yeddyurappa for the losses the party faced last fortnight in the bye-polls to the Nanjungud and Gundlupet Assembly seats.

Things got personal at the meet, when Eshwarappa loyalist M Bhanuprakash, without taking names, said that “useless dogs” who had jumped out of the BJP several times were threatening to remove committed workers from the organisation. The dissidents demanded that Yeddyurappa be removed from the post of state party president before May 10.

Miffed by such open defiance to his leadership, Yeddyurappa hit back. In a scathing attack on the same day the “Save organisation” event was held, the former chief minister accused Santosh of orchestrating a rebellion against him. Yeddyurappa loyalists also launched a signature campaign to have Eshwarappa removed as MLC leader of Opposition.

The internal war has come as a challenge to the national leadership ahead of the 2018 Karnataka Assembly polls as it attempts to wrest back the state from the Congress. Not willing to take sides and exacerbate the matter, the high command on Sunday decided to take disciplinary action against four leaders, two from each group. While Bhanuprakash and Nirmal Kumar Surana in the Eshwarappa camp were relieved of their party positions, Renukacharya and Madhusudhanan of the Yeddyurappa camp were removed from their responsibilities.

Turf war

Yeddyurappa and Eshwarappa, who hail from Shimoga, have been at loggerheads ever since the first BJP government was formed under Yeddyurappa in 2008. As a minister in that government, Eshwarappa first began expressing his displeasure at the “autocratic functioning” of Yeddyurappa in 2009.

In 2013, Yeddyurappa was removed from the BJP following corruption charges. He formed his own outfit, which split the vote in Assembly elections later that year, sending the party to a loss against the Congress. In 2014, he was brought back to the party, helping it to win 17 Lok Sabha seats. The former chief minister managed to win from Shimoga, a seat in which Eshwarappa finished fourth in the 2013 Assembly elections.

Ever since Yeddyurappa’s return, their feud has intensified. In what seemed to be an acknowledgement of Yeddyurappa’s popularity, the national leadership last year decided to appoint him as the chief ministerial candidate for the 2018 Assembly elections. This came close to Yeddyurappa’s acquittal in a disproportionate assets case filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

For long, Yeddyurappa’s supporters have blamed Santosh, who took over the position in 2005, as the brain behind the former chief minister’s ouster in 2013.

In the BJP, the position of the organising secretary is occupied by a person deputed from the RSS. Such leaders are expected to keep away from power politics and focus entirely on strengthening the organisation. Many in the BJP consider this post more powerful than that of the state president, given that the organising secretary acts as the bridge between the RSS and the party and has direct channels of communication with both the leaderships.

An official close to Santosh said he was not too happy with Yeddyurappa’s “domineering nature”. “In the RSS, such behaviour is never appreciated,” the official added. This led to friction between the two.

While Eshwarappa’s rebellion emerged in the form of open defiance through competing conferences and meetings, Santosh was accused of working behind the scenes against Yeddyurappa, who feeels the organising secretary may be harbouring chief ministerial ambitions.

Fresh trouble

The current round of internal clashes in the Karnataka BJP has its roots in the recent bye-elections, which the party lost by huge margins last fortnight.

A state party vice president said both Santosh and Eshwarappa were unhappy with the choice of candidates for the polls and Yeddyurappa’s strategy of poaching Congress leaders and giving them prominence in the BJP. The Nanjungud seat was given to former Congress Minister Srinivasa Prasad despite several BJP long-timers competing for it.

There was also the caste angle to the feud. One of the primary accusations against Yeddyurappa was that he had a greater focus on his Lingayat community than the party. Eshwarappa, who belongs to the Kuruba community, rose to prominence thanks to the BJP’s attempts to widen its base among the backward classes.

This caste equation was one of the reasons why the national leadership is unwilling to act decisively against either of the leaders, though Amit Shah sends out warnings periodically to both factions. Even on Sunday, the high command did a balancing act by removing two leaders from each faction, a decision arrived at after sparks flew at a meeting chaired on Saturday by the general secretary in charge of Karnataka, Muralidhar Rao.

A senior leader said the high command was conscious of the fact that any major rebellion in the party will hurt its chances in the 2018 Assembly elections.

“In particular, they do not want a caste war to break out before the 2018 polls,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

The leader said Santosh has been asked to meet Amit Shah in New Delhi next week.